The ongoing and unfolding reactions to the Coronavirus look set to have wide-ranging and long-lasting effect on politics, society and economics. The drive to close down all activities is extraordinary as are the measures being promoted to isolate people from each other.
The deep-rooted fear of contagious disease, hardwired into the collective consciousness by historical events such as the ‘Black/Bubonic Plague’ and maintained through popular culture (e.g. the Hollywood movies Outbreak and Contagion), means that people are without question highly susceptible to accepting extreme emergency measures whether or not such measures are rational or justified.
At the same time, political actors are fully aware that these conditions of fear and panic provide a critical opportunity that can be exploited in order to pursue political, economic and societal objectives. It is very likely, however, that the dangers posed by the potential exploitation of Corona for broader political, economic and societal objectives latter far outweigh the immediate threat to life and health from the virus. A lesson from recent history is instructive here.
9/11 AND THE GLOBAL ‘WAR ON TERROR’
The events of September 11 2001 represent a key moment in contemporary history. The destruction of three skyscrapers in New York after the impact of two airliners and an attack on the Pentagon, killing around 3000 civilians, shocked both American and global publics. The horror of seeing aircraft being flown into buildings, followed by the total destruction of three high rise buildings within a matter of seconds, and the spectre of a shadowy band of Islamic fundamentalists (Al Qaeda) having pulled off such devastating attacks, gripped the imagination of many in the Western world.
It was in this climate of paranoia and fear that extraordinary policies were implemented. The USA Patriot Act led to significant civil liberty restrictions whilst the mass surveillance of the digital environment became normalized.
CORONA VIRUS: A NEW 9/11?
The lesson of 9/11 is that major events can become what scholar Peter Dale Scott describes as deep events which are exploited by political actors in order to precipitate and manage major political, economic and social shifts. 9/11 became, in effect, the deep event that enabled 20 years of unfettered Western warfare abroad and severe civil liberty restrictions and extensive surveillance at home.
At the time of 9/11 many people in the West were terrified of terrorism. Public opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan (the first regime war to flow within months of 9/11) was almost impossible without being accused of being reckless in the ‘fight against terrorism’ or of being an ‘Al Qaeda’ sympathizer. Muslims throughout the West were widely despised. US President George Bush declared that ‘you are either with us or against us’. The parallels with what is happening today are obvious.
Is the Coronavirus a new 9/11, a new deep event? We cannot yet be sure, as of this writing. Perhaps the current strategy of suspending basic liberties will work to effectively eliminate all threats posed by the virus. Governments will then restore the civil liberties currently being suspended and all will fairly quickly return to the way things were before. Perhaps the economy will confidently weather the fallout from the ‘lockdowns’ and everything will return to business as usual.
And perhaps a sober ‘lessons learned’ review will lead to public health officials developing reasonable and balanced plans, such as developing sufficient capacity for rapid testing and tracing, which can be deployed the next time a sufficiently dangerous virus starts to spread thus avoiding terrifying publics and implementing draconian measures that inflict significant damage to the social and economic fabric of society.
An obvious concern here is whether there will be a permanent impact on mass gatherings and protests. James Corbett warns of a permanent state of ‘medical martial law’ and there is certainly the very real possibility of the normalization of government-imposed quarantine and other freedom of movement restrictions.
Margaret Kimberley of the US-based Black Agenda Report warns that Corona may be used as a way of covering up both economic crisis and collapse. She notes that the Federal Reserve ‘recently threw Wall Street a $1.5 trillion lifeline which only kicked the can down the road. The can has been kicked ever since the Great Recession of 2008’. The likely destruction of small businesses might allow for ever greater corporate choke-hold on the economy with more people forced into the corporate workforce.
There is certainly the danger that COVID-19 will be exploited in order to distract from severe economic problems whilst also enabling the pursuit of new economic strategies which worsen rather than mitigate the social inequalities that already tarnish Western countries.
And, of course those actors behind the regime-change wars that flowed from 9/11 may use the Coronavirus to increase pressure on the countries they have been targeting for the last 20 years and those they wish to target in the future.
ABC news report that, despite the Coronavirus, US and UAE troops have held a major military exercise ‘that saw forces seize a sprawling model Mideast city’. It is also worth nothing here the recent US assassination of Iranian General Solemeni and the on-going proxy battles between US forces and Iranian-backed groups in Iraq. The possibility of Corona being exploited in order to further the regime change wars we have seen over the last 20 years is extremely likely and it would be naïve in the extreme to think otherwise.
Whatever the COVID-19 event may or may not be, the fundamental lesson of the last 20 years is that governments can and do exploit, even manipulate, events in order to pursue political, social, military and economic objectives. Fearful populations are frequently irrational ones, vulnerable and malleable. Now is not the time for deference to authority and reluctance to speak out.
It is time for publics to get informed, think calmly and rationally, and to robustly scrutinize and challenge what their governments are doing. The dangers of failing to do this likely far surpass the immediate threat posed by the Coronavirus.